Opinion: British Columbia needs local watershed boards to avoid water wars

Opinion: Imagine: Water for new housing meets water for growing food. Water for salmon versus water for cattle. But conflict over water access is not inevitable in British Columbia

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“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” So goes the old Mark Twain saying. As we approach the end of spring with record snowpack and a drought that never ended, we need strong leadership from Premier David Eby and his government to ensure this does not become a reality here in British Columbia.

Recent announcements of provincial funding for agricultural water infrastructure and water metering projects are welcome measures, but we are concerned that they are piecemeal and reactive. What we really need, and what many water experts have been calling for, is a long-term review and investment in BC’s watershed governance regime.

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In British Columbia, many pressures are already straining the social fabric that holds our communities together. Rising costs, housing shortages, the lingering effects of the COVID pandemic, political polarization, and the rise of global populism are undermining people’s sense of stability and trust in public institutions.

With the effects of the climate crisis upon us, we face the serious risk of adding fierce competition for scarce water resources to this list. Imagine: water for new homes versus water for growing food. Water for salmon versus water for cattle. Water for local residents versus water for tourists. And water for industry versus water for natural ecosystems.

Last summer, a prolonged drought caused tensions to escalate in regions of British Columbia as farmers lost crops, salmon perished in dry streams and wells dried up. There are already warning signs in other parts of the world. In Spain, for example, anger and frustration over a years-long water crisis recently boiled over into massive street demonstrations.

But fear, conflict and protests over water access are not inevitable here in British Columbia. We still have enough water. What we lack is the urgency and priority to address it.

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So how can we follow a different path that avoids serious conflicts and creates security in watersheds?

For starters, the provincial government needs to get up to speed on the basics of water management. This includes fixing British Columbia’s groundwater licensing system, protecting drinking water sources, holding industries accountable for their water use, and regularly reporting on the health of our watersheds.

Additionally, to ensure watershed safety, our government must enable local decision-making. You can do this by investing in a watershed board system.

Watershed boards foster cooperation and mutual understanding by bringing local people together around shared goals for the watersheds they call home. These meetings facilitate difficult but respectful conversations between neighbors, such as between chiefs and mayors, farmers and salmon advocates, and business leaders and management groups. Fundamentally, these boards leverage the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and Western science to deepen understanding of watershed health, promote reconciliation, and implement locally designed solutions.

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Compared to provinces like Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and Manitoba, BC is currently lagging behind when it comes to watershed governance. These provinces already have frameworks for local watershed agencies, which play a central role in watershed planning, setting priorities, including responding to droughts and floods, protecting drinking water sources and strengthening community water management.

BC can learn from and improve other models to build a watershed governance system designed for the challenges we face now. Fortunately, we already have solid BC-based examples to learn from and build on. Created in 1970, the Okanagan Basin Water Board is the first and only legislated watershed board in the province. It is an enduring example of local cooperative watershed management. It distributes grants, implements science and monitoring, conducts public education, promotes local government collaboration, and coordinates sustainable water management initiatives.

More recently, the Cowichan Tribes and the Cowichan Valley Regional District created the Cowichan Watershed Board. Recognized as a model of co-governance, the board reflects both First Nations and local government authority. It carries out watershed monitoring, education and restoration activities. He has successfully advocated for provincial and federal partnerships, including BC’s first Water Sustainability Plan and funding to upgrade the Cowichan Dam.

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Provincial leadership is needed to create and support effective local watershed boards that build on these successful models. By embracing collaborative watershed governance, we have a unique opportunity to show the world a positive way forward: a path that overcomes divisions, drives reconciliation, empowers local decisions, and harnesses the ingenuity of the people who know their issues best. basins.

Tim Morris is a project manager at BC Water Legacy; Oliver M. Brandes is associate director of the Center for Global Studies, co-director of the POLIS project on ecological governance at the University of Victoria, and a long-time formal advisor to the Cowichan Watershed Board.

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